Australia’s petition to Queen Elizabeth II for a pardon for soldiers who shot Prisoners Of War (POWs) during the 1899-1902 Second Anglo-Boer War and were subsequently court-martialled and executed, has not gone unnoticed in South Africa.
The focus of the Australian petition is the case involving two Lieutenants in an irregular unit, called the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC), Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock.
Digital Journal asked Hamish Paterson, a South African military historian and a member of the Military History Society, whether Australia was right in asking the Queen for a pardon. Paterson said:
I don’t think they have actually considered what Morant was convicted of. Let’s start off with the laws of war. If for example, we have a surrender. You want to surrender and I don’t accept your surrender, so I choose not to accept it, that I’m entitled to do.
Speaking on the telephone from Johannesburg, Paterson spoke about an infamous “take no prisoners” order issues by the British commander, Lord Kitchener. The historian explained that the rules of war in fact allowed military commanders to use their own discretion to decide whether a surrender was genuine or whether it was merely a ruse. He said the most dangerous time in a battle was when a position was being overrun. He said:
You’re going to have people shot in the heat of the moment
But after the battle, things change. Paterson said:
However, the situation changes dramatically once I accept your surrender, then I must remove you from the battlefield to a POW camp and keep you safe. If, for example, Kitchener said, “take no prisoners,” that was very different from “shoot prisoners!”
So Morant and Handcock made two very basic errors: Once you’ve accepted the surrender, you take them to the railway line and get them shipped off to Bermuda, or wherever. At that point, the sensible thing to do was to ship them of to a POW camp.
The historian continued:
The next error was to shoot these guys in front of a neutral witness, and then you kill the witness. These are a series of terrible errors of judgement. Because they killed a German missionary, the Kaiser (became) involved.
Digital Journal asked about the perception in Australia that Morant and Handcock had been shot was because the British military authorities were biased against Australians. Paterson gave some little-known detail. He explained that the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC) were a British Imperial unit, not an Australian one:
Technically, the two “Aussies” were British officers. The problem was you were dealing with an unstable set-up the in BVC . It had just been formed. I don’t see a regular Australian unit behaving that way.
As for the British troops, he said:
I rather suspect why no British guys were shot was that they were either regular army or militia, or yeomanry, all of which are very unlikely to actually shoot prisoners. I think no British were shot because they hadn’t made the mistake of shooting prisoners who’d already surrendered.
The Memorial Wall in the town of Utrecht, remembering foreign volunteers who fought for the Boers.
If the Queen should pardon the two Australians, I wondered, should Australia then apologise to the descendants of the 12 murdered Boers and the German missionary? Paterson said:
I don’t think there’s an argument. If these guys are pardoned then Australia must apologise for the act. A pardon doesn’t mean they didn’t do it. It just pardons the act. The emotion has overlooked the fact that they did it. And so an apology is in order.
Paterson is Chief Education Officer of the South African National Museum of Military History and was speaking in his capacity as a member of the South African Military History Society.